There is real skill required to build warm relationships at the same time as you manage people to achieve high levels of delivery. It is easy to be either a nice ineffectual leader or a ruthless driver. It is a lot more difficult to drive and build appropriate relationships at the same time.

And this is why confrontation is such a critical team-skill.  Teams are an excellent way to get complex, large tasks done. But teams provide space for people to slack off. Anybody who has worked in a team will recall someone who just did not pull their weight. Harvard Professor J Richard Hackman called this “Social Loafing”.

Social Loafing comes in a host of varied recognisable forms. People arrive late, they don’t complete tasks or they don’t engage in critical interactions.

Social Loafing calls for intervention

Social loafing and other disruptive behaviour must be addressed if the team is to deliver. But raising a difficult topic with the person concerned can make matters worse.  Much worse!  Criticising someone’s attitude or presenting the wrong facts is common errors.

And on this slippery slope we are prone to descend into personal or racial attacks. We may also make dogmatic statements, shutting off any opportunity to reply. And we can get stuck in exhausting ‘he said – she said’ or ‘yes it is – no it isn’t’ arguments. In the worst cases there may be explosions as one or both parties lose control.

Is it any wonder therefore why we shy away from confronting difficult topics? The disruptive behaviour is allowed to continue until the team revolts, someone is fired or someone leaves.

But there is good news. There is a better way to handle these difficult conversations. It is simple. But not easy! Therefore the process requires practice.

Here is an overview of an approach that works well. The first step is to clarify the topic.

Clarify your concerns

The first step is to turn your sense of unease or the critical message welling up in you into a clear statement of the topic to be addressed. Here are some useful steps:

  1. Acknowledge the problem: deal with the denial or lack of information preventing you from seeing the issue.
  2. Collect information: Collecting information to prepare for confrontation requires patience, effort and skill. It is hard work to observe, record, categorise and analyse. Shooting from the hip is far easier, but as all horse-operas illustrate, unless you have spent a lifetime practicing, it can go ‘real bad’. By the way, you will know you are failing to identify the heart of the issue when you are constantly discussing the same problem, your solution doesn’t get you what you really want, and you feel yourself becoming increasingly upset.
  3. Reflect on your information and describe the gap between the expected behaviour and what you have observed:  Summarise the problem. Take a step up the ladder of inference to describe the meaning you attribute to these observations, your assumptions and the conclusions you reached.

Manage your preconceptions

  1. Master the stories you tell yourself: Consider what might be contributing to the behaviour you observe. Be generous and forgiving. This is your opportunity to take full control of what is happening in your Left Hand Column. Instead of asking “what is wrong with this person?” Ask “Why would a rational, decent, reasonable person do something like this?” Become curious. Instead of being judge, jury and executioner become curious about the cause of the behaviour. What is it about the person, their peers and their work environment that could be motivating or enabling this behaviour?
  2. Decide whether or not you will indeed confront the relevant person on the chosen topic. And clarify your reasoning behind your decision to confront or not to confront. There is a whole field of consideration in this decision. Remember that when you walk away from violated expectations and broken promises you give tacit approval of the action, you are left with the frustration of not being heard. And everyone loses an opportunity to understand each other in the situation.

Your choice boils down to a decision whether to accept your helplessness, alienation and confusion or whether there may be common ground in which you can learn new things about yourself and the other party that can make a difference towards more trust and better outcomes.

Write down your decision. Sleep on it. Read your notes and review your decision.

If you choose not to confront the person, set your analysis aside and get on with your work. Deal with the emotions arising from observing the continuing behaviour.

Finally as you prepare your description, define the open question you would like to pose that will provide the guidelines for the response from the person you will be confronting.  If you choose to confront the person, arrange a meeting in a place where the conversation may be confidential.

The confrontation – Present the Gap

  1. Start by creating a safe environment: When we feel fear we cannot talk about anything. However, when we feel safe we can talk with almost anyone about almost anything. The best way to create safety is to explain your desire to create safety. A word of caution though: The term “safe space”, like the phrase “trust me on this” it has come to mean the opposite. A good way to create safety is to talk about your mutual respect (based on the step to master your stories) and your mutual purpose.
  2. Describe the Gap: Start with the facts. What you saw and heard. Then share the assumptions you have made as a result of these facts. These assumptions include how these observations have affected you and your behaviour.  End your description with an open question to allow you both to test your assumptions, conclusions and actions.
  3. Maintain mutual respect throughout your interaction: Even if the infraction is massive you can speak and act in a way that will keep the person feeling that you respect them as a person (hint: You can only do this successfully if you have decided to respect them as a person).

Listen carefully

  1. This is a coaching conversation: For best results, your intention will be to develop the person. Finish your question then push your tongue to the bottom of your mouth. Hold whatever urge you have to speak. Do not say anything more. Allow the person to have their say.
  2. Listen for issues of motivation and issues of ability: remember you don’t need to have all the answers. Therefore you don’t have to ask leading questions or, worse still, commands couched as questions. And you don’t to pretend to involve the person you are confronting. If you answer ”no that won’t work” to all of their suggestions stop and reflect on how much you value the input of this person.
  3. Guide the conversation: This is the part where we have to work unrehearsed. This is where additional problems surface. Therefore we have to be flexible to pick up and prioritise new problems and focussed to deal with one problem at a time.

Agree a plan of action

  1. Finally agree a plan of action: Good problem solvers build a platform for accountability by agreeing a plan. This includes who does what when and how you will all stay in touch with delivery (hint: think agile).

Each of these steps requires careful reflection, preparation and delivery. However if you have made the decision to provide feedback and confront difficult topics, this is the best approach. In StrategyWorks we have been helping teams work together effectively for about two decades. Call Stephen or drop us a note to hear more.